THE MAGAZINE

From Research to Reality

By Joseph Straw

An emergency medical team arrives at the scene of a mass casualty event at a suburban shopping mall. The victims—among them the first police, firefighters, and paramedics at the scene—are unconscious, but show no obvious signs of trauma, raising the specter of a toxic chemical leak and possibly a terrorist attack.

 
A group of paramedics dressed in hazmat protective suits approaches the scene, one team member is carrying a ruggedized, briefcase-sized device that he places atop the hood of an abandoned vehicle. He aims the device at individual victims—one by one—from a distance. Using the results as a guide, he directs his fellow paramedics into the “hot zone” to treat and evacuate those who are not already dead.
 
The response scenario above is imagined by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T). It may not be long before the technology envisioned in use in such a case—a standoff patient triage tool (SPTT) that has already proven itself in the lab—is reality.
 
SPTT represents just one example of the types of advances being pursued by S&T, which divides its role into four areas: The first two—traditional research and innovation—are ways in which DHS pursues entirely new technologies. The latter two—transition and commercialization—are where the agency helps further the development and field deployment of proven technologies. In each case, S&T focuses on how technology will benefit three primary groups of customers: DHS itself, the nation’s first responders, and owner-operators of the nation’s critical infrastructure.
 
Traditional Research
 
Research is pursued in an open-ended manner. “There have been many reports written by the National Academies saying that the worst thing you can do to bound science and limit discovery is to limit the direction,” S&T Director of Research Starnes Walker explains.
 
“Many, many discoveries occur at the seams of disciplines of physics, math, chemistry, and many of those occur serendipitously where a principal investigator is really looking in this area because we want to know more, but they see something they don’t understand, that takes them on a tangent, and that many times turns out to be where the key discovery is in science and technology,” he notes.
 
Thus, S&T follows science and engineering research across academia and at the country’s national laboratories to watch for research that might hold promise for its customers. When it finds something it views as promising, it funds further research.
 
Even then, the research is not restricted to a specific, operational end, Walker says. If, for example, DHS were to fund long-term research in blast mitigation, by the time a discovery occurs, the threat environment may have changed dramatically. If the threat remains, that discovery might simply displace the threat to another method of attack. If, however, DHS were to fund research into the broader science of advanced building materials, a discovery might enhance blast mitigation, building resilience, or levee construction, Walker says.
 
Within academia, DHS also focuses a portion of its academic research a little more directly by allocating funds to 12 subject-matter specific centers of excellence, such as the University of Minnesota’s National Center for Food Protection and Defense (NCFPD), the University of Maryland’s National Center for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), and Texas A&M University’s National Center for Foreign and Zoonotic Disease Defense (FAZD).
 
Research underway at NCFPD, for example, ranges from a sectorwide risk assessment of the U.S. imported food supply and ongoing monitoring of consumer confidence in food safety in pursuit of more effective and affordable test methods for the presence of toxins in food.
 
START maintains the Global Terrorism Database, a repository of information on more than 80,000 terrorist attacks covering nearly 40 years, while its researchers study why people become terrorists and how terror groups flourish or fail. FAZD focuses on the persistent threat that animal diseases pose to humans, pursuing medicines, data analysis systems, and educational programs to mitigate risk.
 
Wide-ranging research and development for the homeland security market also takes place at the country’s national laboratories, which are funded primarily by the Department of Energy (DOE). At DOE’s Brookhaven and Sandia national laboratories (in Upton, New York, and Livermore, California, respectively) for example, scientists are exploring technologies that hold the promise of improved detection of radiological materials, while reducing inconvenience to the public and speeding commerce.
 
Existing technology can detect radiation but not its precise location or the exact nature of the source. Complicating the issue, common commercial items such as porcelain toilets, kitty litter, and even bananas can emit harmless levels of radiation that generate “innocent alarms,” slowing container processing.
 
Currently, the best commercial detection of radioactivity comes from highly enriched germanium devices like those marketed by manufacturer Ortec. To function, however, the chemicals must be cooled within the device by liquid nitrogen to -321 degrees Fahrenheit, raising the cost of large hand-held units to around $75,000, compared to less than $25,000 for a sodium iodide device.
 
At Brookhaven, research involves growth of calcium zinc telluride (CZT) crystals, which can detect the same gamma radiation as highly enriched germanium, but at room temperature, according to Joseph Indusi, chair of Brookhaven’s Nonproliferation and National Security Department, and Carl Czajkowski, division leader for Detector Development and Testing. While CZT may not offer data as granular as highly enriched germanium, the elimination of the cooling requirement offers promise for the homeland security market.
 
The current challenge for Brookhaven researchers lies in growing CZT crystals to a thickness necessary to detect the high intensity gamma radiation emitted from weapons-grade materials. That could require crystals centimeters thick, while current crystals are only millimeters thick, Indusi says.
 
Meanwhile across the country at Sandia, researchers funded by DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency are pursuing different radiation-detection technology: the neutron scatter camera, a device about the size of a washing machine with the ability to detect high-energy protons—nuclear particles given off by radioactive decay—as they pass through it from any direction.
 
The neutron scatter camera relies on proton-rich fluid sensors. Neutrons entering the device bounce off the protons, and the system detects them and their direction of origin. However the technology requires extended periods of time—hours or days—to detect the trickle of high-energy neutrons coming from a radioactive source and then pinpoint their trajectory. That rules out use of the device for spot checks at places like airports or seaports, but it might work if it could be carried out while goods were in transit. By having containers scanned at sea, ports would be spared the logistical logjam of screening containers one-by-one.
 
To test that idea, the departments of Energy and Defense placed the neutron scatter camera on three round-trip sea voyages between the West Coast and Hawaii. The tests showed promise, but the would-be end-users want higher sensitivity and faster results. Further, the neutron scatter camera’s fluid sensors are currently very delicate and their contents highly flammable, according to Sandia.
 

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